Journalists should ask hard questions

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Posted 8/14/18 (Tue)

Editorial

This week, more than 100 newspapers across the country are publishing editorials on the danger of rhetoric undermining a free press.
President Trump has frequently claimed journalists’ stories are fake and that journalists are “enemies of the people.” He calls journalists “horrible” people and thousands of his supporters cheer, leaving the other side of the story largely untold.
As a press release from the North Dakota Newspaper Association declares, this week newspapers are affirming their role as “members of their community, chroniclers of the first draft of history, and watchdogs who shed light on local troubles as well as local triumphs.”
A recent Ipsos survey shows an overwhelming number of people -- 85 percent --  believe “freedom of the press is essential for American Democracy,” but the same survey illuminates a growing belief among some that the government should be able to silence “bad” media.
But who gets to decide which media is “bad”?
Your guy may be in office now, but what if your side was in the minority? Would you want the party in power to have the right to silence all dissension?
The danger that our democracy could be derailed in this way was deemed so important, the founders of our country recognized those rights must be among the bedrock principles enshrined in the First Amendment.
While few people would welcome a law establishing a state religion or removing their right to peacefully assemble, we now live in a time when discomfort over exposure to information we do not like would cause a significant number of people to curtail their own freedoms in order to quiet it.
But how would the public become aware of inequities without a free press to hold government accountable?
On the local level, that means requiring the boards of political subdivisions to follow the open meeting and open records laws we have in North Dakota. It means reporting on budget processes to keep the public informed of how their tax dollars are spent. It’s questioning the hiring, firing and wage decisions these boards make. At times it may mean questioning whether a public official’s personal life may influence decisions on the job, or it could involve reporting on a city’s decision to use public funds to build a new community pool.
On the local level we also report how our communities come together in times of tragedy, raising money for neighbors hurt by illness or accident. And we chronicle good times when towns celebrate their heritage or invite youngsters to fly drones.
What happens on the national level is similar, but with greater consequences, and, increasingly, threats of physical violence to the people whose job it is to gather facts on your behalf.
Whatever the level of government, the most important function of the press is to question the actions and aims of elected officials. The reporter who was recently banned from a Rose Garden ceremony was “punished” for doing her job as members of the Washington Press Corps have always done. A president may not like the questions, but regardless of your political persuasion, the right of a reporter to ask hard questions must be upheld. Likewise, the right of the official to offer no comment -- a fact that will also be duly reported.
When you see a public figure slamming doors in the face of questioning or extending a hand to block a news photographer’s camera, so too, metaphorically, do elected officials who try to curtail the press from asking questions they have a right to ask.
History has shown that when a leader attempts to silence the press, it is the people who suffer and the truth that is obscured. It’s a tactic designed to confuse citizens and inflame hearts. 
Leaders who tell people not to believe what they see with their own eyes or hear with their own ears are playing a dangerous game, with democracy hanging in the balance.
Yet the next time there’s a story that makes them look good, guess who they call?
Thank goodness an overwhelming majority of Americans still recognize this dynamic for what it is, even in the midst of the increasingly polarized political climate we live in today. 
Rather than entertaining the notion of silencing any opposition, citizens need now, more than ever, to challenge themselves to hear multiple views, not take the word of those attempting to  quash critical thinking. Read newspapers, vote in elections, oppose any effort to curtail the public’s right to know what the government is doing on your behalf.
We may be living in an era where there is little shared national reality, but the truth is out there -- and it is a free press that will reveal it through factual reporting.
Perhaps the best argument for a free press is made by looking at the countries without one. 
And the best evidence of a journalist doing a good job? People on both sides of an issue who are angry.